Everybody’s first experience with horror is a nightmare – their own bad dreams. Surreal horror manages to recreate the anxiety, confusion and dreamlike quality of those nightmares.
In fact, it’s such fertile ground for horror that there are dozens of excellent possible films to celebrate – beginning with Bunuel and Dali’s 1929 head trip Un Chien Andelou to Bergman’s 1968 film Hour of the Wolf, Shin’ya Tsukamoto’s fantastical 1989 fantasy Tetsuo, the Iron Man to Turkey’s latest foray into the genre, Can Evrenol’s 2015 head trip Baskin. All of these films are required viewing for horror fans, but something had to be set aside.
So, here you have it: our pick of the five best surreal horror films.
5. Vampyr (1932)
The well-groomed Allen Grey (Julian West) is an aimless dreamer preoccupied by tales of the supernatural. He wanders thusly, with what appears to be a fish net, to a secluded little inn. But trouble’s afoot.
And dig those crazy shadows!
Early in Vampyr, Grey receives a package from a weary looking man. The package says, “To be opened upon my death.” It appears that Grey has stumbled into a deadly mystery with nothing to help him puzzle out the details except that needless fish net.
The great Carl Theodor Dreyer co-wrote and directed this gorgeous black and white fantasy. The painterly quality of Dreyer’s frames and the bizarre character behavior give the film a surreal atmosphere you can’t shake. His decision to limit dialog to a minimum and craft the film with traditional silent film gimmicks benefitted the dreamscape atmosphere.
As Grey wanders through this picturesque nightmare realm, the film becomes almost drunk with weirdness. Dreyer captures the gorgeous terror of a dream more perfectly than any other filmmaker, in a movie that is never predictable, always a bit surreal and spooky.
4. Possession (1981)
Speaking of sex and monsters – wait, were we? – have you seen Possession? WTF is going on there?
Andrzej Zulawski – writer/director/Czech – created this wild ride with doppelgangers, private investigators, ominous government (or are they?) agencies, and curious sexual appetites. It’s more precisely fantasy than horror, but it strikes me as David Cronenberg meets David Lynch, which is a pairing we can get behind.
Mark (Sam Neill) and Anna’s (a fearless Isabelle Adjani) relationship boasts an intentional artificiality – a queasying sexuality – that makes it hard to root for either of them as their marriage deteriorates. Anna, it seems, is in love with someone else. Is it the sexually open – really, really open – Heinrich? Is it a bloody, mollusk-like monster? Is Mark boning Anna’s mean friend with a cast on her leg? Does Bob’s kindergarten teacher bear an unreasonable resemblance to Anna? Is anyone caring properly for Bob?
These questions and more go basically unanswered in a deviant, summary-defying, fantastical bit of filmmaking that mocks the idiocy, even insanity of obsession and boasts a handful of weirdly excellent performances. And sex with a bloody mollusk-like monster.
3. Repulsion (1965)
The first of Polanski’s brilliant “apartment trilogy,” Repulsion takes on its protagonist’s point of view. As Carol (an utterly amazing Catherine Deneuve) spirals into a hallucinogenic stupor of violence and paranoia, Polanski wisely decided to occupy that same headspace, rather than observing it as an outsider.
It gives the film its surreal feel, developed partly by the wonderful camera work of Gilbert Taylor, who uses the black and white necessitated by the budget to wondrous, shadowy, menacing effect.
Though the marketing for the film promoted a virgin’s hysteria, close attention to the film suggests something far more sinister beneath Catherine’s breakdown. Is it ironic that Roman Polanski of all people is able to articulate the mental and emotional chasm left by a likely sexual assault? Why yes, yes it is, but God help me, he does it well.
2. Gozu (2003)
If you are looking for genuine lunacy in film, your search should begin and quite possibly end with filmmaker Takashi Miike. His shit is nuts. Truth be told, there are scads of Miike films that could have populated this list because even his tamest, most logical, no-puppetry films are wild rides. So when he starts coloring way outside the lines, expect to be surprised.
This one starts off as a yakuza film – one guy on a mob-style assignment – then descends into absolute madness.
Minami (Yuta Sone) has been ordered to assassinate his feeble-minded yakuza boss Ozaki (Sho Aikawa), but he’s conflicted. Then he loses Ozaki and wanders, in search, into – you might say it was the Twilight Zone, except this place is considerably weirder. There’s a minotaur. An electrified anal soup ladle death scene. Some seriously, seriously weird shit.
Like a walk through somebody’s subconscious, the film is awash in repressed sexual desires of the very most insane and unspeakable. There’s a comical element that’s almost equally unsettling. Gozu is not as violent as many Miike films – it’s violent, don’t be mistaken, but the horror here is more in unseemly behavior and wildly inappropriate imagery. It’s just stuff you can’t unsee.
1. Eraserhead (1977)
There truly is no film quite like David Lynch’s first feature, eh?
Eraserhead defies simple summarization. Easily the most surreal of all Lynch’s films – which is a huge statement – the film follows sad-sack Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) dealing poorly with fatherhood.
The film becomes a nightmare of paternal angst and existential crisis – indeed, it may be impossible to name a film or filmmaker more able to bring a nightmare to life.
It’s also among the finest examples of corporeal horror you will find. The shadowy, grimy b/w photography – partially handled by Lynch’s longtime cinematographer Frederick Elmes – amplifies the dismal stagnation facing Henry.
At the same time, it gives a weird, nostalgic camp factor to the Lady in the Radiator and adds a particularly lurid element to that whole bleeding “chicken” thing.
Plus, the baby. Yikes. Alive with the most disturbing imagery, Eraserhead is impossible to forget.